Andale! Samba on Over to L.A.'s Best Mexican Eateries
By Jenny Peters
Los Angeles Local Expert
Fantastic Mexican food is one of the best reasons to visit Los Angeles, for there's no better place on the planet (except for in Mexico itself, of course) to find the tastiest dishes originating from south of the border. From little taco stands (and the original food trucks) to elegant eateries specializing in fine fare from specific regions of Mexico, Southern California has it all. Even the James Beard Foundation acknowledges that the City of Angels has one of the best in the U.S., recently honoring Guelaguetza with its "America's Classic" award. Given to a "restaurant with timeless appeal, beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community" that has been open for more than 10 years, that elite award is rarely given to a Mexican place, despite the fact that L.A. boasts a number of other wonderful places that have been open much longer. The Oaxacan-style Guelaguetza opened in 1994; meanwhile, classics like El Cholo and Barney's Beanery have been serving up Mexican specialties since the 1920s; El Coyote since 1931; and Tito's Tacos since 1959. There are always new places springing up around town, too, hotspots like Chef Jose Acevedo's Mercado, which quickly spawned more locations, and Dia del Campo, which packs them in down in the South Bay. And beyond great food, places that make spectacular margaritas are hugely popular – like Ortega 120, where well over 120 tequilas are offered. They even have a "Tequila University," special classes to help patrons learn more about that uniquely Mexican libation.
Barney's Beanery Redondo Beach
Barney's Beanery in Redondo Beach is the sixth (and most recently opened) outpost of the famed chili and Mexican eatery that opened in 1920. Nine decades later the West Hollywood original on Santa Monica Boulevard is going strong; this beachfront version has the added attraction of a great ocean view (be sure to look for the sea lions, they are one of Redondo's most popular residents). The menus at all Barney's are similar, ranging from chilaquiles and huevos rancheros for breakfast to massive plates of nachos and taquitos during Happy Hour to a wide range of Mexican classics (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, fajitas, quesadillas, tostadas and chimichangas) and that renowned chili served at any time you're in the mood. There's plenty of other more American fare on their vast menu and beer lovers will rejoice over all the different possibilities on offer. Take a craft-beer sampler flight or just order one of their massive 25-ounce steins; either way, it's a beer drinker's paradise here. (424-275-4820)
A mainstay of Mexican food in Los Angeles, El Coyote opened its doors in 1931 and this family-owned eatery has been making sure that Angelenos get their fill of tacos, burritos and margaritas ever since. The kitschy decor includes Christmas lights that burn all year round, giant sombreros and stained glass windows; it's a perfect decor for the groups that gather to sip their house-made sangria and chow down on their famous shrimp fajitas and ostrich tacos. If tequila is your drink of choice, be sure to visit on Margarita Mondays and Tequila Tuesdays, where drink specials flow freely. And keep your eyes out for celebrities, as everyone from Tim Burton to Edward Norton are fans of this California classic. (323-939-2255)
Looking for the real thing in Los Angeles? Then head to Culver City and Tito's Tacos, the legendary taco stand that has been dishing out addictive burritos and tacos since 1959. That's the reason you'll almost always see a line; they are usually long, but they move fast. This is a no-frills joint, serving up beef or bean tacos in a hard or soft shell, as well as burritos (try the one packed with chili con carne), enchiladas and tamales. You'll only find chicken in one dish, a tamale smothered with a green chili meat sauce. Go for the extra guacamole; even with that, you'll have a full meal for well under $10 here. Note that Tito's is cash only. (310-391-5780)
The original Loteria! Grill, this Mexican taco stand located in the heart of the Original Farmer's Market near the Grove is the first of Jimmy Shaw's burgeoning Loteria! empire. He now boasts six grills all around town, many of which are full-blown restaurants. But whether you're at this little stand or one of his sit-down spots, you'll always find delicious, authentic Mexican fare. Well-stuffed burritos packed with beef, chicken, shrimp or pork are just the beginning -- try the albondigas (meatballs) in smoky chipotle sauce, tacos topped with zucchini and succotash or a huge platter of enchiladas. Lime-aid, watermelon juice, and even hibiscus flower tea help wash it all down here at the Farmer's Market; order a margarita, cerveza or other specialty cocktails at the Hollywood, Santa Monica, Studio City or Westlake Village outposts. (323-930-2211)
Dia de Campo
Surf on down to Hermosa Beach for a modern take on Mexican food, presented by Executive Chef Tin Vuong and Chef de Cuisine Ken Johnson at Dia de Campo. This spicy spot that calls itself a "Mexican surf lodge" opened early in 2014 and has been packing people in ever since. It's got an easy vibe, with communal tables, a raw bar and wood-fire-grill open kitchen, comfy booths and an overall beach casual feel. Standouts on this eclectic menu include guacamole served with marinated Dungeness crab, lusciously sweet chorizo stuffed dates, a juicy short-rib empanada and a spicy, mole-drenched whole fish designed for two or three to share. Go for raw or grilled oysters and duck quesadillas, and pair all with a "Borracho Bowl" -- the "Yucatan Bowl" is filled with tequila, pineapple, lime and mandarin orange, serves six and goes for $65. That's sure to get the party started! (310-379-1829)
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger started the Border Grill back in 1990, featuring lighter, yet completely authentic Mexican cuisine. Since then, the duo also known as Two Hot Tamales have created an empire serving up Mexican food that is jam packed with complex flavors, fresh vegetables and fruits. You'll now find the Border Grill at LAX, in downtown L.A., Las Vegas and even served off their two popular food trucks around Southern California. Try the meaty tacos and groaningly fat burritos, or one of the assorted vegetarian and seafood options. Exceptional dishes include the achiote-marinated pork and seasoned carnitas on corn tortillas. Mojitos and margaritas made with premium tequilas pack a powerful punch here; bring a designated driver! (310-451-1655)
There are plenty of Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, but the three Mercado eateries are something special. The newest is in North Hollywood and it continues the traditions of the other two (in Santa Monica and on West Third Street), as Chef Jose Acevedo whips up modern Mexican food that keeps everyone coming back for more. His slow-cooked carnitas are wonderful, especially paired with Elote Callejero, grilled sweet corn mixed up with caramelized onions and chile piquin butter. Everything is served in the "small plates, large plates" style, so sharing is easy, although it is likely you'll want to keep all the Tacos de Camaron (grilled shrimp, jicama, Mexican slaw and tangy spices) to yourself. It's not surprising that everyone from trendy hipsters to families of five are found here; there's definitely something for everyone on Mercado's innovative Mexican menu. (323-512-2500)
Ortega 120 is the brainchild of chef Thomas Ortega and mixologist Demi Stevens. Together, they created this popular South Bay restaurant where first-rate Mexican food pairs with top-notch tequila drinks (yes, there are well more than 120 different tequilas at the bar here), creating a place where locals and tourists just cannot get enough of both. Order a pitcher of their classic house margarita and the whole table will soon be singing along with the band that is often playing here in the evenings. Or go for one of the craft tequila cocktails on offer, but be careful -- these go down like water! Pair your libation with one of the perfectly spiced main courses: there are "Platillos Tradicionales" like Enchiladas Verdes and Baja Style Fish Tacos, or Ortega 120's unique offerings, including the Lamb Shank Birria, Chile Braised Short Ribs or Duck Confit Chilaquiles. No matter what you choose, you cannot go wrong here. (310-792-4120)
Guelaguetza was recently honored by the James Beard Foundation, which awarded the Oaxacan eatery with its "America's Classic" honorarium. Given to a "restaurant with timeless appeal, beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community," there's little doubt that the foundation made a good choice with the restaurant that has been operating (somewhat ironically) in Koreatown since 1994. Simply sample one of their traditional Oaxaca entrees like the famed Mole Negro made with juicy chicken or the Costilla de Puerco Enchilada, pork ribs drenched in a spicy sauce, and you'll understand why. Go for breakfast, lunch or dinner; and enjoy live music just about every evening at this lively, family-run place. (213-427-0608)
The family-run Mexican restaurants known as El Cholo began in 1923, with a small place near the Memorial Coliseum (which opened that same year). Now there are six of them scattered across Southern California, all offering up the classics that have made El Cholo such a resounding success. You'll notice the dates on the menu that mark when a dish was first served: the seasonal (and unexpectedly sweet) Green Corn Tamales have always been on the menu and are not to be missed. Carmen's Original Nachos (from 1959) set the standard for that dish and we adore the Plato de Carnitas (1989), lush roasted pork paired with a tangy avocado relish. El Cholo is famous for their top-shelf margaritas, too, and proudly lay claim to being the first restaurant to use premium ingredients in their drinks. (213-746-7750)
About Jenny Peters
Jenny Peters – aka Jet Set Jen – is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, editor and party columnist specializing in travel, entertainment, film, food, wine, fashion and the other good things in life. She is a founding/voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, who present the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards every January. Her favorite places to be are on the beach in Southern California playing volleyball, scuba diving with the sharks in warm tropical waters or strolling the streets and soaking in the atmosphere of one of the world's great cities (New Orleans and Florence are her favorites).
Read more about Jenny Peters here.